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APART from mere surface politics, the ante-bellum South 
is largely an unknown country to American historians. 
The conditions, the life, the spirit of its people were so 
different from those which prevailed and still prevail in the 
North that it is difficult for northern investigators to interpret 
correctly the facts which they are able to find. From the 
South itself they have received little assistance ; for before the 
war southerners were content, as a rule, to transmit traditions 
without writing books and since the war they have been too 
seriously engrossed in adapting themselves to new conditions 
to feel any strong impulse towards a scientific reconstruction of 
the former environment. When the South shall have been 
interpreted to the world by its own writers, it will be highly 
useful for students of other sections and other countries to 
criticise and correct, utilize and supplement the southern 
historical literature. 2 At the present time, however, the great 
need seems to be that of interpretation of developments in the 
South by men who have inherited southern traditions. This 
consideration will perhaps justify the following incomplete 

Whether negro slavery was an advantage in the early colo- 
nies and whether it became a burden in the later period, and, 
if so, how the change occurred, and why the people did not 
relieve themselves of the incubus — these are a few of the funda- 
mental problems to which the student must address himself. 
The present essay, based on a study of slave prices, deals with 
the general economic conditions of slaveholding, and shows the 
great transformation caused by the opening of the cotton belt 
and the closing of the African slave trade. 

1 The grant of a fund by the Carnegie Institution of Washington has been of ma- 
terial aid in prosecuting the research of which this article is a product. 

2 In the study of the economic history of American slavery the writer has enjoyed 
the collaboration of Dr. Charles McCarthy, of Wisconsin, a keen thinker with a point 
of view which supplements that of a southerner. 

2 37 


As regards the labor supply, the conditions at the outset in 
the new world of America were unlike those of modern Europe, 
but similar to those of Asia and Europe in primitive times. The 
ancient labor problem rose afresh in the plantation colonies, 
for land was plentiful and free, and men would not work as 
voluntary wage-earners in other men's employ when they might 
as readily work for themselves in independence. There was a 
great demand for labor upon the colonial estates, and when it 
became clear that freemen would not come and work for hire, 
a demand developed for servile labor. At first recourse was had 
to white men and women who bound themselves to serve three or 
four years to pay for their transportation across the sea, and to 
English criminals who were sent to the colonies and bound to 
labor for longer terms, frequently for five or seven years. In- 
dian slaves were tried, but proved useless. Finally the negroes 
were discovered to be cheap and useful laborers for domestic 
service and plantation work. 

For above half a century after the first negroes were brought 
to Virginia in 1620, this labor was considered a doubtful ex- 
periment ; and their numbers increased very slowly until after 
the beginning of the golden age of the colony toward the end 
of the reign of Charles II. But the planters learned at length 
that the negroes could be employed to very good advantage 
in the plantation system; and after about 1680 the import of 
slaves grew steadily larger. 1 

In the West Indies the system of plantations worked by 
slaves had been borrowed by the English settlers from the 
Spaniards ; and when the South Carolina coast was colonized, 
some of the West India planters immigrated and brought this 
system with them. In view of the climate and the crops on 
the Carolina coast, negro slave labor was thought to be a sine 
qua nan of successful colonizing. The use of the slaves was 
confined always to the lowlands, until after Whitney invented 
the cotton gin ; but in the early years of the nineteenth cen- 
tury the rapid opening of the great inland cotton belt created 
a new and very strong demand for labor. The white farming 

1 For statistics of the increase of slaves in Virginia, see J. C. Ballagh, History of 
Slavery in Virginia, pp. 10 to 25, et passim. 


population already in the uplands was by far too small to do 
the work ; the lowland planters began to move thither with 
their slaves ; the northern and European laboring classes were 
not attracted by the prospect of working alongside the negroes ; 
and accordingly the demand for labor in the cotton belt was 
translated into an unprecedented demand for negro slave labor. 

Negro slavery was established in the South, as elsewhere, 
because the white people were seeking their own welfare and 
comfort. It was maintained for the same economic reason, 
and also because it was thought to be essential for safety. As 
soon as the negroes were on hand in large numbers, the prob- 
lem was to keep their savage instincts from breaking forth, 
and to utilize them in civilized industry. The plantation sys- 
tem solved the problem of organization, while the discipline 
and control obtained through the institution of slavery were 
considered necessary to preserve the peace and to secure the 
welfare of both races. Private gain and public safety were 
secured for the time being ; but in the long run, as we shall see, 
these ends were attained at the expense of private and public 
wealth and of progress. 

This peculiar labor system failed to gain strength in the 
North, because there was there no work which negro slaves 
could perform with notable profit to their masters. In certain 
parts of the South the system flourished because the work 
required was simple, the returns were large, and the short- 
comings of negro slave labor were partially offset by the ease 
with which it could be organized. 

Once developed, the system was of course maintained so long 
as it appeared profitable to any important part of the commu- 
nity. Wherever the immediate profits from slave labor were 
found to be large, the number of slaves tended to increase, not 
only through the birth of children, but by importations. Thus 
the staple-producing areas became " black belts," where most 
of the labor was done by slaves. With large amounts of cap- 
ital invested in slaves, the system would be maintained even in 
times of depression, when the plantations were running at some- 
thing of a loss ; for, just as in a factory, the capital was fixed, 
and operations could not be stopped without a still greater loss. 


When property in slaves had become important, the conserva- 
tive element in politics became devoted, as a rule, to the pre- 
servation of this vested interest. The very force of inertia 
tended to maintain the established system, and a convulsion or 
crisis of some sort was necessary for its disestablishment in any 

As a matter of fact it was only in special industries, and only 
in times of special prosperity, that negro slave labor was of 
such decided profit as to escape condemnation for its inherent 
disadvantages. But at certain periods in Virginia and in the 
lower South, the conditions were unusual: all labor was 
profitable ; hired labor was not to be had so long as land 
was free ; indentured white servants were in various ways un- 
satisfactory, and negro slaves were therefore found to be of 
decided profit to their masters. The price of Africans in 
colonial times was so low that, when crops and prices were 
good, the labor of those imported repaid their original cost 
in a few years, and the planters felt a constant temptation 
to increase their holdings of land and of slaves in the hope of 
still greater profits. 

Thus in Virginia there was a vicious circle : planters bought 
fresh lands and more slaves to make more tobacco, and with 
the profits from tobacco they bought more land and slaves to 
make more tobacco with which to buy yet more land and slaves. 
The situation in the lower South was similar to that in Virginia, 
with rice and indigo, or sugar, or in latter times cotton, substi- 
tuted for tobacco. In either case the process involved a heavy 
export of wealth in the acquisition of every new laborer. The 
Yankee skipper had a corresponding circle of his own : he car- 
ried rum to Guinea to exchange for slaves, slaves to the plan- 
tation colonies to exchange for molasses, molasses to New 
England to exchange for more rum, and this rum again to 
Guinea to exchange for more slaves. The difference was that 
the Yankee made a genuine profit on every exchange and 
thriftily laid up his savings, while the southern planter, as a 
rule, invested all his profits in a fictitious form of wealth and 
never accumulated a surplus for any other sort of investment. 

From an economic point of view the American system of 


slavery was a system of firmly controlling the unintelligent 
negro laborers, and of capitalizing the prospective value of the 
labor of each workman for the whole of his life. An essential 
feature of that system was the practice of buying and selling 
the control over the slave's labor, and one of the indexes to the 
economic situation at any time may be found in the quotations 
of slave prices. 

The slave trade had no particular local home or " exchange," 
but it extended throughout all the slaveholding districts of 
America. Though the number and frequency of slave sales 
was relatively small, the traffic when once developed had many 
of the features of modern stock or produce markets. It cannot 
be forgotten, of course, that the slave trade involved questions 
of humanity and social organization as well as the mere money 
problem ; but from the financial point of view the slave traffic 
constituted simply an extensive commodity market, where the 
article dealt in was life-time labor. As in any other market, 
the operations in the slave trade were controlled by economic 
laws or tendencies. There were bull influences and bear influ- 
ences, and occasional speculative campaigns. And when at 
times the supply was subjected to monopoly control, the prices 
tended to go wild and disturb the general system of finance in 
the whole region. 

In the general slave market there was constant competition 
among those wishing to sell, and among those wishing to 
buy. The volume of the colonial slave trade and the rate of 
slave prices tended to fluctuate to some extent with the tides 
of prosperity in the respective staple-producing areas ; but 
during the colonial period the plantations in the different reg- 
ions were of such varied interests, producing tobacco, rice, 
indigo, cotton, sugar and coffee, that depression in one of 
these industries was usually offset, so far as concerned the 
slave-trader, by high profits in another. Barbadoes was the 
information station. The slave ships touched there and gath- 
ered news of where their " ebony" was to be sold the highest. 1 
The Royal African Company had the best system of intelli- 

1 D. McKinnon, Tour Through the British West Indies, p. 8. 


gence, and about 1770 and 1780 it sold its cargoes at a fairly 
uniform price of £18 to ^22 per head, 1 while the independent 
traders appear to have obtained from ^15 to £2%, according to 
the chances of the market. American-born slaves, when sold, 
brought higher prices than fresh Africans, because their train- 
ing in plantation labor and domestic service rendered them 
more valuable. The prices of the home-raised slaves varied 
considerably, but so long as the African trade was kept open, 
the price of field hands of all sorts was kept reasonably near to 
the price of the savage African imports. 

In the very early period the sellers in the slave market were 
more eager than the buyers, and the prices ranged nearly as 
low as the cost of purchasing slaves in Africa and transporting 
them to America; but great prosperity in all the different 
groups of plantations at the same period soon greatly increased 
the demand, and the ships in the traffic proving too few, prices 
rapidly advanced. After this, however, there came a decline 
in tobacco profits ; then the war of revolt from Great Britain 
depressed all the staple industries simultaneously, and follow- 
ing that the American production of indigo was ruined by for- 
eign competition. Thus in 1790-95 slave prices reached the 
bottom of a twenty years' decline. 2 

1 Virginia Magazine, iii, 167. Calendar of State Papers, Colonial Series, America 
and West Indies, 1775-76, p. 155 et passim. 

1 The depression of industry in the staple districts toward the close of the eigh- 
teenth century is illustrated by several contemporary writers. Samuel DuBose, in 
his reminiscences of St. Stephen's parish, describes conditions in lowland South 
Carolina in the period after the close of the American Revolution : 

" When peace was restored every planter was in debt. . . . Ruin stared many in 
the face. Besides, with the exception of rice, the country had no staple crop; for 
since the bounty, which as colonists they had enjoyed on the export of indigo and 
naval stores, had been discontinued, these products ceased to have any value, and 
negroes fell in price. Prime gangs were not unfrequently sold for less than two 
hundred dollars per head. . . . The people however .... were sanguine respect- 
ing the future. . . . They strove to reduce their expenses to the lowest possible 
point; they manufactured clothing for themselves and their slaves; raised abundant 
supplies of poultry and stock of various kinds, and with these contrived to live in 
plenty. ... [At length] the Santee Canal was projected and constructed within 
their neighborhood. Everyone availed himself to a greater or less extent of this 
opportunity of hiring their negroes; for men they received thirty and for women 
twenty pounds sterling per annum, besides their food. At times a thousand labor- 


The developments following Whitney's invention of the 
cotton gin revolutionized the situation. Slave prices entered 
upon a steady advance, which was quickened by the prohibi- 
tion of the African trade in 1808. They were then held sta- 
tionary by the restrictions upon commerce, and were thrown 
backward by the outbreak of war in 1812. But with the peace 
of Ghent the results of the new cotton industry and of the ces- 
sation of African imports became strikingly manifest. The 
inland fields of the lower South proved to be peculiarly adapted 
for the production of cotton. The simplicity of the work and 
the even distribution of the tasks through the seasons made 
negro slave labor peculiarly available. With the increasing 
demand of the world for cotton, there was built up in the 
South perhaps the greatest staple monopoly the world had ever 
seen. The result was an enormous demand for slaves in the 
cotton belt. American ports, however, were now closed to 
the foreign slave trade. The number of slaves available in 
America was now fixed, the rate of increase was limited, and 
the old " tobacco South " had a monopoly of the only supply 
which could meet the demand of the new " cotton South." 

ers were employed on this work, which was seven years in being completed. The 
enterprise, which was disastrous to those who had embarked in it, rescued a large 
number of planters from ruin. It was commenced in 1792, and finished in 1800. 
Two or three years after it had been commenced, a few planters in the neighborhood 
tried the cultivation of cotton on a small scale, but the progress of this enterprise was 
slow and irresolute, in consequence of the difficulty of preparing it for market. With 
the improvement of the gins, the cotton culture increased and was extended, until 
1799, when Capt. James Sinkler planted three hundred acres at his plantation Bel- 
videre, on Eutaw Creek, and reaped from each acre two hundred and sixteen pounds, 
which he sold for from fifty to seventy-five cents per pound." This pamphlet of 
DuBose's is reprinted in T. G. Thomas' History of the Huguenots in South Carolina. 
N. Y., 1887, vide pp. 66-68. The accuracy of the statements quoted is borne out by 
the very interesting manuscript records of the Porcher-Ravenel family, which are 
now in the possession of members of the family at Pinopolis, St. John's parish, Berk- 
eley, S. C. 

Virginia conditions are indicated in a letter of George Washington to Alexander 
Spotswood, Nov. 23, 1794, which is published in the New York Public Library 
Bulletin, vol. ii, pp. 14, 15. Spotswood had written that he intended moving west, 
and asked advice as to selling his lands and slaves. Washington replied that he 
believed that before many years had passed slaves would become a very troublesome 
sort of property, and that, except for his principles against selling negroes, he himself 
would not by the end of twelve months be possessed of a single one as a slave. 


Till 1815 "colonial" conditions prevailed, and the market 
for slave labor was relatively quiet and steady. In 1 8 1 5 began 
the " ante-bellum " regime, in which the whole economy of the 
South was governed by the apparently capricious play of the 
compound monopoly of cotton and slave labor. The price of 
cotton was governed by the American output and its relation 
to the European demand. And the price of slaves was gov- 
erned by the profits in cotton and the relation of the labor 
demand to the monopolized labor supply. 1 

For an understanding of slaveholding economics, a careful 
study of the history of slave prices is essential. Prior to the 
middle of the eighteenth century, the scarcity of data, the 
changing value of gold, the multiplicity of coinage systems and 
the use of paper money with irregular depreciations unfortu- 
nately present so many obstacles that any effort to determine 
the fluctuation of slave prices would be of very doubtful suc- 
cess. For the following periods the study is feasible, although 
under the best of existing circumstances slave prices are hard 
to collect and hard to compare. The proportion of the slave 
population on the market at any time was very much smaller 
than the student of prices could wish for the purpose of his 
study ; and many of the sales which were made are not to be 
found in the records. The market classification of the slaves 
was flexible and irregular; and, except in Louisiana, most of 
the documents in the public archives do not indicate the classi- 
fication. To make thoroughly accurate comparison of slave 
prices at different times and places, we should need to know, 
among other things, the sex, age, strength and nativity of the 
slaves ; the purity or mixture of blood of the negroes, mulat- 
toes, quadroons, mestizoes, etc.; and their special training or 
lack of it. For such statistical purposes, however, the records 
have many shortcomings. In many cases they state simply 
that the slave Matt or Congo or Martha, belonging to the 
estate of William Jones, deceased, was sold on the date given 
to Thomas Smith, for, say, $300, on twelve months' credit. 
Such an item indicates the sex and states the price, but gives 

1 Cf. De Toqueville, Democracy in America, vol. ii, p. 233. 


little else. In other instances the slaves are classed as infants, 
boys, men (or fellows) and old men; girls, wenches and old 
women. Whole families were often sold as a lot, with no indi- 
vidual quotations given. Women were hardly ever sold sep- 
arate from their young children. In the dearth of separate 
sale quotations, any study of the prices of female slaves would 
have to be based chiefly upon appraisal values, which of course 
were much less accurate than actual market prices. 

The sales made by the professional slave traders were gen- 
erally recorded each in a bill of sale ; but in most of the locali- 
ties these were not transcribed into the formal books of record, 
and the originals have mostly disappeared. The majority of 
the sales of which records are to be found were those of the 
slaves in the estates of deceased persons. These sales were at 
auction ; and except in abnormal cases, which may often be 
distinguished, they may be taken as fairly representative of 
slave prices for the time and place. 

There was always a great difference between the values of in- 
dividual slaves. When the average price of negroes ranged 
about $500, prime field hands brought, say, $1,000, and 
skilled artisans still more. At that rate, an infant would be 
valued at about $100, a boy of twelve years and a man of fifty 
at about $500 each, and a prime wench for field work at $800 
or $900. 

The most feasible comparison of prices is that of prime field 
hands, who may be defined as well-grown, able-bodied fellows, 
with average training and between eighteen and thirty years of 
age. To find the current price of prime field hands in lists 
where no classification is given, we take the average of the 
highest ordinary prices. We ignore any scattering extreme 
quotations, as applying probably to specially valuable artisans, 
overseers or domestic servants, and not to field hands. Where 
ages are given, we take the average of the prices paid for 
grown fellows too young to have received special training. 
We leave aside, on the other hand, the exceptionally low 
quotations as being due to infirmities which exclude the slave 
from the prime grade. The professional slave traders in the 
domestic traffic dealt mostly in " likely young fellows and 


wenches." In the quotations of the sales by these traders, 
when no details are recorded, we may assume that the average, 
except for children, will range just a little below the current 
rate for prime field hands. 

In view of all the hindrances, the production of a perfectly 
accurate table of prices cannot be hoped for, even from the 
exercise of the utmost care and discrimination. The table 
which follows is simply an approximation of averages made in 
a careful study of several thousand quotations in the state of 
Georgia. 1 

The parallel quotations of cotton prices * afford a basis for 
the study of slave-labor capitalization. In examining these 
quotations it will be noticed that during many brief periods 
the prices of slaves and cotton rose and fell somewhat in har- 
mony ; but that in the whole period under review the price of 
cotton underwent a heavy net decline, while slave prices had 
an extremely strong upward movement. The change which 
took place in the relative slave and cotton prices was really 
astonishing. In 1800 a prime field hand was worth in the 
market about 1500 pounds of ginned cotton; in 1809, about 
3000 pounds; in 1818, about 3500; in 1826, about 5400; in 
1837, about 10,000; in 1845, about 12,000; in i860, 15,000 to 
18,000. In his capacity for work, a prime negro in 1800 was 
worth nearly or quite as much as a similar slave in 1 860 ; and 
a pound of cotton in 1 860 was not essentially different from a 
pound of cotton in 1800. But our table shows that within that 
epoch of three-score years there was an advance of some 1000 
or 1200 per cent in the price of slaves as measured in cotton. 

1 The sources used for this tabulation are the documents in the Georgia state 
archives and the records of Baldwin, Oglethorpe, Clarke' and Troup counties, all 
lying in the Georgia cotton belt, together with bills of sale in private hands, travelers' 
accounts, and articles in the newspapers of the period. Instances of sudden rise or 
fall in slave prices and sales of large and noted estates were often reported in the 
local press, with comments. There is no printed collection of any large number of 
slave-price quotations. 

2 The cotton price averages are made from the tables given by E. J. Donnell in his 
Chronological and Statistical History of Cotton, New York, 1872, with the aid of 
the summaries published by G. L. Watkins, Production and Price of Cotton for 
One Hundred Years, U. S. Department of Agriculture, Washington, 1895. 

No. 2] 









1800 1 


i860 2 


Price of 

Prime Field 











Economic Situation 

and THE 

Chief Determinant Factors 

War and depression in industry 
and commerce. 

Peace and returning prosperity. 

Depression due to Great Britain's 
attitude toward American com- 

Cotton gin invented. 

African slave trade prohibited. 
Embargo moderates rise in prices. 

War with Great Britain 


Financial crisis 

Recovery from panic 

Moderate prosperity 


Flush times 

Inflation — crash 

Cotton crisis 

Cotton crisis; acute distress 


Severe depression 

Recovery in cotton prices. Texas 
demand for slaves 


Expansion of cotton industry and 
simultaneous rise in tobacco 
prices. 3 


N. Y. Price 

of Upland 


30 cents. 

19 cents. 
12 cents. 
29 cents. 
16 cents. 

14 cents. 

15 cents. 

10 cents. 
17^ cents. 
l 3/4 cents. 
13)2 cents 

9 cents. 

7% cents. 

5)2 cents. 

9>£ cents, 
12 cents. 

11 cents. 



I 805-1810 




I 827-1 828 



1 The quotations down to this point are lowland quotations. There were very few slaves in the 
uplands before 1800. 

' In the later fifties there were numerous local flurries in slave valuations. In central Georgia 
prime negroes brought $2,000 in i860, while in western Georgia and central Alabama the prices ap- 
pear not to have run much above $1,500. For prices in the other parts of the South in that decade, 
see G W. Weston, Who are and who may be slaves in the United States, a pamphlet published 
in 1856. See also Brackett, The Negro in Maryland; Ingle, Southern Sidelights; Hammond, The 
Cotton Industry, and De Bow's Review* vol. xxvi, p. 647. 

3 The rise in tobacco prices and the revival of prosperity in Virginia in this decade tended to dimin- 
ish the volume of the slave trade and contributed to raising slave prices. Cf. W. H. Collins, The 
Domestic Slave Trade in the Southern States, N. Y., 1904, p. 57. 


The decline in the price of cotton was due in some measure 
to a lessening of cost, through improvements in cultivating, 
ginning and marketing. The advance in slave prices was due 
in part to the increasing intelligence and ability of the negroes 
and to improvements in the system of directing their work on 
the plantations, and also in part to the decline in the value of 
money. But the ten-fold or twelve-fold multiplication of the 
price of slaves, when quoted in terms of the product of their 
labor, was too great to be explained except by reference to the 
severe competition of the planters in selling cotton and in buy- 
ing slaves. Their system of capitalized labor was out of place 
in the modern competitive world, and burdened with that sys- 
tem all the competition of the cotton planters was bound to be 
of a cut-throat nature. In other words, when capital and labor 
were combined, as in the American slaveholding system, there 
was an irresistible tendency to overvalue and overcapitalize 
slave labor, and to carry it to the point where the financial 
equilibrium was unsafe, and any crisis threatened complete 

Aside from the expense of food, clothing and shelter, the 
cost of slave labor for any given period of time was made up 
of several elements : 

(i) Interest upon the capital invested in the slave. 

(2) Economic insurance against (a) his death, (b) his illness 
or accidental injury, and (c) his flight from service. 1 Of course 
insurance policies were seldom taken out to cover these risks, 
but the cost of insurance against them must be reckoned in the 
cost of slave labor for any given period. 

(3) The diminishing value of every mature slave by reason 
of increasing age. Because of the "wear and tear" of his 
years and his diminishing prospect of life and usefulness, the 
average slave of fifty-five years of age would be worth only half 

1 Physicians' and attorneys' fees should perhaps be included under the head of in- 
surance. It may be noted that doctors' charges were generally the same for slaves as 
for white persons. To illustrate how expensive this charge often was, we may cite 
an instance given in the records of Troup county, Georgia, where Dr. Ware collected 
from Col. Truitt's estate $1 30.50 for medicine and daily visits to a negro child, from 
November 29, 1858, to January 5, 1859. 


as much as one of twenty-five years, and after fifty-five the 
valuation decreased still more rapidly. In computing the cost 
of any group of slaves it will be necessary to set over against 
this depreciation the value of the children born ; but, on the 
other hand, the cost by groups would be increased by the need 
of supporting the disabled negroes who were not in the work- 
ing gangs. 

(4) Taxation assessed upon the capitalized value of the 
slaves. In the slaveholding region as a whole, in the later ante- 
bellum period, the total assessed value of slave property was at 
least as great as that of all the other sorts of property com- 

The rate of slave hire would furnish a good index of the cur- 
rent price of slave labor year by year, if sufficient quotations 
on a stable basis could be obtained. But on account of the 
special needs or wishes of the parties to the individual bargains, 
there were such opportunities for higgling the rate in individ- 
ual cases that the current rate is very elusive. The following 
averages, computed from a limited number of quotations for 
the hire of men slaves in middle Georgia, are illustrative : In 
1800, $100 per year; ini8i6,$no; ini8i8,$i40; in 1833, 
$140; in 1836, $155; in 1841, $140; in i860, $150. These 
were in most cases the years of maximum quotations in the 
respective periods. The local fluctuations in short periods 
were often very pronounced ; but in the long run the rate fol- 
lowed a gradual upward movement. 

The relation between the price of slaves and the rate of their 
hire should theoretically have borne, in quiet periods, a definite 
relation to the rate of interest upon capital ; but the truth is 
that in the matter of slave prices there was, through the whole 
period after the closing of the African trade, a tendency to 
" frenzied finance " in the cotton belt. Slave prices were 
largely controlled by speculation, while slave hire was regu- 
lated more largely by the current rate of wages for labor in 
general. The whole subject of these relations is one for which 
authentic data are perhaps too scanty to permit of thorough 

Negro slave labor was expensive, not so much because it 


was unwilling as because it was overcapitalized and inelastic. 
The negro of himself, by reason of his inherited inaptitude, was 
inefficient as a self-directing laborer in civilized industry. The 
whole system of civilized life was novel and artificial to him ; 
and to make him play a valuable part in it, strict guidance and 
supervision were essential. Without the plantation system, 
the mass of the negroes would have been an unbearable bur- 
den in America ; and except in slavery they could never have 
been utilized, in the beginning, for plantation work. The 
negro had no love of work for work's sake ; and he had little 
appreciation of future goods when set over against present 
exemption from toil. That is to say, he lacked the economic 
motive without which voluntary civilized industry is impossible. 
It is a mistake to apply the general philosophy of slavery to 
the American situation without very serious modification. 1 A 
slave among the Greeks or Romans was generally a relatively 
civilized person, whose voluntary labor would have been far 
more productive than his labor under compulsion. But the 
negro slave was a negro first, last and always, and a slave inci- 
dentally. Mr. Cairnes and others make a great mistake when 
they attribute his inefficiency and expensiveness altogether to the 
one incident of regulation. Regulation actually remedied iu 
large degree the disadvantages of using negro labor, though it 
failed to make it as cheap, in most employments, as free white 
labor would have been. The cotton planter found the negro 
already a part of the situation. To render him useful, firm 
regulation was necessary. The forcible control of the negro 
was in the beginning a necessity, and was not of itself a burden 
at any time. 3 

1 Palgrave's Dictionary of Political Economy contains an excellent article upon 
slavery, in which it is indicated that harshness and compulsion were not always 
essential in slave labor; that the motive force was often a sort of feudal devotion to 
the master; and, further, that negro slave labor was practically essential for develop- 
ing the resources of the hot malarial swamp regions. 

' The current rate of hire to-day for negro workmen in agriculture in Georgia is 
from $8 to $12 per month; but for the year 1904, the state of Georgia leased out its 
able-bodied convicts at an average rate of $225 per year. When under strict discip- 
line, the average negro even to-day, it appears, is worth twice as much as when left 
to his own devices. 


In American slaveholding, however, the capitalization of 
labor-value and the sale and purchase of labor-control were 
permanent features ; and when the supply was " cornered " it 
was unavoidable that the price should be bid up to the point 
of overvaluation. 1 And this brings us to the main economic 
disadvantage of the system. 

In employing free labor, wages are paid from time to time 
as the work is done, and the employer can count upon receiv- 
ing from the products of that labor an income which will en- 
able him to continue to pay its wages in the future, while his 
working capital is left free for other uses. He may invest a 
portion of his capital in lands and buildings, and use most of 
the remainder as circulating capital for special purposes, re- 
taining only a small percentage as a reserve fund. But to se- 
cure a working force of slaves, the ante-bellum planter had to 
invest all the capital that he owned or could borrow in the 
purchase of slaves and lands ; 2 for the larger his plantation was, 
within certain limits, the more economies he could introduce. 
The temptation was very strong for him to trim down to the 
lowest possible limit the fund for supplies and reserve. The 
slaveholding system thus absorbed the planter's earnings ; and 

1 In the periods of high slave prices employers found that slave labor was too ex- 
pensive to be used with profit except in plantation industry under the most favorable 
circumstances. Striking proof of this is to be seen in the eager employment, 
wherever they could be had, of Irish and German immigrants for canal and railway 
building, ditching and any other labor which might prove injurious to a negro's 
health and strength. Slaves were growing too dear to be used. W. H. Russell 
(My Diary North and South, Boston, 1863, p. 272) writing of the Louisiana sugar 
district in i860, says: "The labor of ditching, trenching, cleaning the waste lands 
and hewing down the forests, is generally done by Irish laborers, who travel about 
the country under contractors, or are engaged by resident gangsmen for the task. 
Mr. Seal lamented the high prices for this work ; but then, as he said, ' It was much 
better to have Irish do it, who cost nothing to the planter, if they died, than to use 
up good field hands in such severe employment.' " The documentary evidence in 
regard to the competition and rather extensive substitution of immigrant labor for 
that of slaves in the times of high slave prices is quite conclusive, in spite of its fugi- 
tive character. Further data may be found in DeBow's Review, vol. xi, p. 400; 
Harper's Magazine, vol. vii, pp. 752 et sea.; Sir Chas. Lyell, Second Visit to the 
United States, vol. ii, p. 127; Waddell, Annals of Augusta County, Virginia, pp. 
272, 273; and the James River and Kanawha Canal Company's fourth annual re- 
port, Richmond, 1839. 

2 Cf. F. L. Olmsted, A Journey to Texas, pp. 8-10. 


for such absorption it had unlimited capacity, for the greater 
the profits of the planters the more slaves they wanted and the 
higher the slave prices mounted. Individual profits, as fast as 
made, went into the purchase of labor, and not into modern 
implements or land improvements. 1 Circulating capital was 
at once converted into fixed capital; while for their annual 
supplies of food, implements and luxuries the planters con- 
tinued to rely upon their credit with the local merchants, and 
the local merchants to rely upon their credit with northern 
merchants and bankers. 

Thus there was a never-ending private loss through the con- 
tinual payment of interest and the enhancement of prices ; and, 
further, there was a continuous public loss by the draining of 
wealth out of the cotton belt by the slave trade. 2 With the 

1 This was lamented by many planters, especially in times of low staple prices. 
Cf. Southern Agriculturist, published at Charleston, 1828, vol. ii, p. 1 et passim ; 
and especially an address by Dr. Manly before the Alabama State Agricultural 
Society, Dec. 7, 1841, published in the Tuscaloosa Monitor, April 13, 1842. (File 
in the Alabama State Department of Archives and History. ) 

'This injurious effect of the slave traffic is strikingly illustrated in the account by a 
Charleston bookseller, E. S. Thomas, of the misfortunes which befell his business by 
the reopening of the South Carolina ports to the foreign slave trade in 1803. 
Thomas had found the business opportunities in Charleston exceedingly good; and 
for some years he had been annually doubling his capital. But in November, 1803, 
he had just opened a new importation of fifty thousand volumes, when news came 
from Columbia that the legislature had opened the ports to the slave trade. " The 
news had not been five hours in the city," he writes, "before two large British 
Guineamen, that had been lying on and off the port for several days expecting it, 
came up to town; and from that day my business began to decline. ..... A great 

change at once took place in everything. Vessels were fitted out in numbers for the 
coast of Africa, and as fast as they returned their cargoes were bought up with 
avidity, not only consuming the large funds that had been accumulating but all that 
could be procured, and finally exhausting credit and mortgaging the slaves for pay- 
ment For myself, I was upwards of five years disposing of my large stock, at a 

sacrifice of more than a half, in all the principal towns, from Augusta, in Georgia, to 
Boston." E. S. Thomas, Reminiscences, vol. ii, pp. 35,36. 

The same general phenomena were observed in various other parts of the South, 
as is shown by the following extract from a letter written August 22, 1 774, by one 
John Brown, a citizen of Virginia, to William Preston : " Some time ago you told 
me that you intended to enter the servant trade, and desire[d] me to tell if there was 
any encouragement our way for the sale of them. I think there is none, for these 
reasons: (1) the scarcity of money; (2) servants are plenty and everyone has as 
many as they want; besides, the country is sunk in debt by them already. If you 


stopping of the African slave trade, the drain of wealth from 
the lower South was not checked at all, but merely diverted 
from England and New England to the upper tier of southern 
states ; and there it did little but demoralize industry and 
postpone to a later generation the agricultural revival. 

The capitalization of labor lessened its elasticity and its ver- 
satility ; it tended to fix labor rigidly in one line of employ- 
ment. There was little or no floating labor in the plantation 
districts ; and the planter was obliged to plan in detail a whole 
year's work before the year began. If he should plant a larger 
acreage than his " force " could cultivate and harvest, a part of 
the crop would have to be abandoned, unless by chance some 
free negro or stray Irishman could be found for the odd job. 
As an illustration of the financial hardships which might befall 
the slaveholder, it may be noted that in 1839 William 
Lowndes Yancey happened to lose his whole force of slaves 
through poisoning in the midst of the working season. The 
disaster involved his absolute ruin as a planter, and forced him 
to seek some other opening which did not require the pos- 
session of capital. 1 

In the operations of cotton production, where fluctuating and 
highly uncertain returns demanded the greatest flexibility, the 
slaveholding system was rigid. When by overproduction the 
price of cotton was depressed, it could be raised again only by 
curtailihg the output in the American cotton belt, which had 
the monopoly. But the planter, owning cotton lands and 
slaves trained in the cotton field alone, found it hard to devote 
his fields with success to other crops or to sell or lease his 
negroes to any one else, for no one else wanted them for any 
other purpose than cotton production. In fact, the proportion 
of the southern resources devoted to cotton production tended 
always to increase. To diminish the cotton output required 
the most heroic efforts. As a rule, the chances of heavy gains 

have not as yet engaged, I think it not prudent for you to do it at the present junc- 
ture; you have business enough upon hand, but these things you can better think of 
than I can." Original MS. in Wisconsin Historical Society, Draper Collection, 
series QQ, vol. iii, no. 81. 

G. W. DuBose, Life of Wm. L. Yancey, p. 39. 


from cotton planting outweighed those of loss, in the popular 
estimation ; and the strong and constant tendency was to spoil 
the market by over-supply. 

There were uncertain returns in cotton raising, and great 
risks in slave-owning. The crop might be heavy or light in any 
year, according to the acreage and the weather, and prices 
might be away up or away down. A prime slave might be 
killed by a rattlesnake or crippled in a log-rolling or hanged 
for murder or spirited away by the underground railroad. All 
these uncertainties fostered extravagance and speculation. 

In the cotton belt inflation and depression followed each 
other in rapid succession ; but the times of prosperity brought 
less real advantage and periods of depression caused greater 
hardship in the slaveholding South than in any normally 
organized community. For by the capitalizing of labor, profits 
were generally absorbed through the purchasing of additional 
slaves at higher prices, while in time of need the cotton-planter 
found it impossible to realize upon his investment because his 
neighbors were involved in the same difficulties which embar- 
rassed him, and when he would sell they could not buy. 

When after the peace in 1815 the system of industry and 
finance of the ante-bellum South had fully developed itself, the 
South and its leaders were seized in the grip of social and 
economic forces which were rendered irresistible by the imper- 
ious laws of monopoly. The cotton-planters controlled the 
South, and for some decades they dominated the policy of the 
federal government; but the cotton-planters themselves were 
hurried hither and thither by their two inanimate but arbitrary 
masters, cotton and slavery. 

Cotton and slavery were peculiar to the South, and their re- 
quirements were often in conflict with the interests and ideas 
prevailing in the other parts of the United States. As that 
conflict of interests and sentiments was accentuated, it became 
apparent that the South was in a congressional minority, likely 
to be overridden at any time by a northern majority. Ruin 
was threatening the vested interests and the social order in the 
South ; and the force of circumstances drove the southern pol- 
iticians into the policy of resistance. To the leaders in the 


South, with their ever-present view of the possibility of negro 
uprisings, the regulations of slavery seemed essential for safety 
and prosperity. And when they found themselves about to 
become powerless to check any legislation hostile to the estab- 
lished order in the South, they adopted the policy of seces- 
sion, seeking, as they saw it, the lesser of the evils confronting 

Because they were blinded by the abolition agitation in the 
North and other historical developments which we cannot here 
discuss, most of the later generation of ante-bellum planters 
could not see that slaveholding was essentially burdensome. 
But that which was partly hidden from their vision is clear to 
us to-day. In the great system of southern industry and com- 
merce, working with seeming smoothness, the negro laborers 
were inefficient in spite of discipline, and slavery was an 
obstacle to all progress. The system may be likened to an 
engine, with slavery as its great fly-wheel — a fly-wheel indis- 
pensable for safe running at first, perhaps, but later rendered 
less useful by improvements in the machinery, and finally 
becoming a burden instead of a benefit. Yet it was retained, 
because it was still considered essential in securing the adjust- 
ment and regular working of the complex mechanism. This 
great rigid wheel of slavery was so awkward and burdensome 
that it absorbed the momentum and retarded the movement of 
the whole machine without rendering any service of great 
value. The capitalization of labor and the export of earnings in 
exchange for more workmen, always of a low degree of effi- 
ciency, together with the extreme lack of versatility, deprived 
the South of the natural advantage which the cotton monopoly 
should have given. To be rid of the capitalization of labor as 
a part of the slaveholding system was a great requisite for 
the material progress of the South. 

Ulrich B. Phillips. 

The University of Wisconsin.